Resistance from Within: Reflecting on Holocaust Remembrance Day
by Sapphire Fein
By the Jewish calendar, tonight marks the start of what most of us call Yom HaShoah, which literally means Holocaust Day. It marks the loss of forty percent of the world's Jewry in the Holocaust, as well as millions of others who died at the hands of Nazi violence. Yet this day is not just a day of mourning. The full name of today's commemoration is Yom HaZikaron LaShoah ve-LaG'vurah, or "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day." Today is also a day to recognize Jewish resistance. By no coincidence, today also marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
When we talk about genocide, we usually talk about victimhood. If we talk about heroism at all, we tend to talk about those who, despite not being targets themselves, became targets to save others. We speak of the Gentile American soldiers who liberated the camps, or the Aryan Europeans who hid Jews (like my paternal grandparents) in their own homes. Rarely, you may even hear of a Japanese man who saved 6,000 Lithuanian Jews or countless Iranians who helped Jewish children (like my maternal grandmother) cross their country by foot.
This is obviously an important part of the narrative. Yet it is just as critical to remember the resistance that happened from within the victimized community. We tend to erase the fact that victims struggle — that more often than not, the victims are the heroes of their own stories. Even if those stories ended in tragedy. People did resist Nazi violence. They were not all led to slaughter, docile and without hope. People do not let go of life without a fight. In the face of violence, some will lose hope and give in. But as a rule, communities fight back.
The Jews were no exception. There was Gisella Perl, who was asked to report all pregnant women to human vivisector Josef Mengele, but instead began to perform abortions in order to save those women’s lives. There was Alexander Pechersky, who bravely led a mass-escape from Sobibor extermination camp. There was the Syrets Concentration Camp Revolt, in which the Jews who were asked to bury the bodies of the Babi Yar Massacre overpowered their captors using their bare hands and basic tools. There were the Sonderkommando rebels, tasked with policing fellow Jewish prisoners, who turned on the Nazi guards. There were uprisings, revolts, and rebellions. Jewish resistance was everywhere.
And this is true across species. Non-human animals fight back too.
We’ve completely erased non-human animal heroism from the conversation. We talk of animal violence as a matter of just the weak and the mighty, where humans have all the power, and all the agency. Moreover, when we talk about humans we say, "they were led like sheep to slaughter." We've erased animal resistance to the point where animals have become a metaphor for human compliance.
I think of my own family. They are heroes to me. For dying so that their children may live, for sacrificing everything they had. For being willing to write about their experiences, to share them with others on film and at Holocaust museums. And I think about the surviving ambassadors of speciesist violence, those animals who broke free of transport trucks and escaped into the streets. I wonder about the uprisings, revolts, and rebellions that we never see — those animals who resist at the slaughterhouse, flee the circus, or push back from within the laboratory cage.
Someday, we will talk about those revolts. Someday, we will memorialize the animals’ struggle just as we try to memorialize my peoples' struggle: in a way that highlights how they were not just victims, but also heroes.